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Roger Stone lays out an extremely unconvincing case denying collusion with Russia

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Longtime Republican operative Roger Stone delivered a defiant defense of himself on Tuesday, saying the allegations he is facing of collusion with Russian operatives in the run-up to the 2016 election are completely false and that there was not “one shred of evidence” to support them.

“This is nothing more than conjecture, supposition, projection, allegation, and coincidence, none of it proven by evidence or fact,” he said a statement released ahead of addressing the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors. “I have no involvement in the alleged activities that are within the publicly stated scope of this Committee’s investigation.”

Allegations of Stone’s collusion stem from a tweet he sent out on August 21, a month-and-a-half before Wikileaks released its first set of emails from John Podesta, then chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, saying “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which John Podesta founded.) 

If Roger Stone’s August tweet was referring to the impending release of Podesta’s emails by Wikileaks it would be extremely strong evidence of collusion with Russia, particularly in light of Stone’s role as an adviser to Trump’s campaign at the time and the U.S. intelligence community’s assertion that Wikileaks was working in concert with Russian military intelligence.

In his testimony to Congress, however, Stone offered a different version of events. His alibi is that he was not referring to Wikileaks’ release of Podesta’s emails but rather predicting “the Podesta brothers’ business activities in Russia with the oligarchs around Putin, their uranium deal, their bank deal, would come under public scrutiny.” He also referred to the fact that his “boyhood friend” Paul Manafort had just resigned because of allegations regarding his business activities in Ukraine. “I thought it manifestly unfair that John Podesta not be held to the same standard,” Stone said.

But there’s a key problem. Virtually none of the “deals” Stone mentions have anything to do with John Podesta at all. Nonetheless, he is claiming those stories — and not the subsequent release of Podesta’s emails by Wikileaks — would constitute a new scandal that would put Podesta “in the barrel.” Not only is there no evidence to back up Stone’s claim, but he publicly bragged about a backchannel to Wikileaks.

Take Stone’s assertion that it was “manifestly unfair” that John Podesta not be held to the same standard as Paul Manafort over his “business activities in Ukraine” or the idea that the “Podesta brothers’ business activities in Russia” had flown under the radar. It is true that the Podesta Group previously did some lucrative lobbying work in Ukraine, but it was run by John’s brother Tony. The Podesta Group was accused of not disclosing the extent of its political work between 2012 and 2014, but John Podesta was not involved with that work. He has not been involved with the Podesta Group for more than 15 years.

Then there’s Stone’s claim that his tweet predicted new scrutiny on the Podesta brothers’ “involvement in the uranium deal.” This stems from a widely-shared fake news story claiming Hilary Clinton approved transfer of 20 percent of U.S. uranium deposits to a Russian company in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation. The story has been widely debunked — and didn’t involve John Podesta at all — despite Trump’s wild accusations about a “Podesta Russian Company.”

That story, and the ones about Tony Podesta’s lobbying, were reported months before Roger Stone’s August 21 tweet, which undermines the idea that it constituted a revelation.

It is true that John Podesta once sat on the board of an solar power company based in Massachusetts called Joule Unlimited, which also had a Russian investor on its board. This could be what Stone was referring to when he mentioned “the Podesta brothers’ business activities in Russia with the oligarchs around Putin.

A few months after Podesta joined Joule, in 2011, Russian investor Anatoly Chubais also came on board. But Podesta left the company in 2014 to join the Obama administration. A 2017 Daily Caller article claimed that Podesta hadn’t properly disclosed his ownership of Joule stock, but the claim turned out to be false.

Yet more evidence that Stone was referring to Wikileaks in his August 21 can be seen with his follow-up post a month-and-a-half later. On October 2, just days before Podesta’s emails were released, Stone tweeted again, this time explicitly naming Wikileaks.

Despite his public statements, Stone told the Select Committee that he only ever communicated with Wikileaks through a journalist who acts as an intermediary. “I have never said or written that I had any direct communication with Julian Assange,” he said. “I have always clarified in numerous interviews and speeches that my communication with WikiLeaks was through the aforementioned journalist.”

As further proof of his theory that there was no Russian interference in the election, Stone cited a report by a group of former U.S. intelligence officials called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). VIPS concluded in an August article for The Nation that the hack of the Democratic National Committee, “was an inside job by someone with access to the DNC’s system.” But the article that Stone cites has been thoroughly debunked — by The Nation itself. “As part of the editing process, however, we should of made certain that several of the article’s conclusions were presented as possibilities, not as certainties,” an editorial statement read.

Stone has long prized himself as a master of the political dark arts, but the mounting evidence showing the scope of potential Russian interference in the election indicates the Republican operative may have finally gone a trick too far.

Experts say the scope of Stone’s denials may also prove quite telling. “He also only denies colluding with the Russian state to ‘affect the outcome of the 2016 election’, and does not deny colluding with Russia on other matters,” former U.S. attorney Renato Mariotti told Just Security. “He is also potentially leaving open the possibility that he colluded with Russian individuals that he could try to plausibly claim were not representing the Russian government.”

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